A frequently made and unjustified accusation made against Obasanjo is that he is “anti-Igbo”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Quite frankly, Igbos have never had it as good as they have under Obasanjo. Obasanjo’s cabinet included among its senior ministers Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Finance Minister) and Tom Aguiyi-Ironsi (Defense Secretary) the son of Nigeria’s first military Head of State Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi. With Professor Charles Soludo in charge of the CBN and Okonjo-Iweala in charge of the finance ministry, Obasanjo had literally given Igbos control of the economy and financial sector. In the military sphere Obasanjo has also rehabilitated Igbos into leadership positions. The current Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal Paul Dike is the first Igbo in the 93 year history of Nigeria to ever head the air force. He was appointed by….Obasanjo. Dike is now also the highest ranking Igbo officer in the history of the Nigerian armed forces. His rank is equivalent to that of a Lt-General in the army. A decade ago appointing Igbos to head sensitive security positions such as the Defense Ministry and the air force would have been taboo.
Nigeria has had several powerful Communications Ministers such as Joseph Tarka and Brigadiers Murtala Muhammed and David Mark. The latter once infamously declared that telephones were not meant to be utilized by poor people. Several attempts to bring mass communication to Nigeria between independence in 1960 and 1999 had brought no tangible benefits. Businessmen frequently traveled for miles and hours to attend meetings that could be resolved with a brief telephone conversation. The state owned telecommunications company Nitel was known only for poor service and faulty phones which would never connect calls, and telephone lines that would result in crossed lines or connections to the wrong line on the rare occasions that calls were put through. All that changed with the liberalization and privatization of the telecoms sector which made mobile telephones easily affordable and obtainable by the rich and common alike. Nigeria is the fastest growing mobile telephony market in the world. The rapid spread of mobile telephones has also made business easier for the micro-entrepreneur who is now able to submit orders by telephone rather than by making long and hazardous road journeys for face to face meetings. It has also allowed Nigerians in the Diaspora to easily maintain contact with relatives and loved ones back in Nigeria, whereas only a few years ago Nigerians overseas would often go for years without speaking to their families in Nigeria due to the unreliability of local telephones. The social and economic benefits brought by the spread of mobile phones in Nigeria has been greatly understated and Obasanjo’s government has not been given sufficient credit for those benefits.
I do not make a dramatic statement by stating that corruption in private and government spheres has been a massive obstacle to Nigeria’s development. One need only consider the scandal of the missing Gulf War oil windfall, and the houses full of government cash kept by former government figures such as former National Security Adviser Ismaila Gwarzo, and the former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory Lt-General Jerry Useni. Obasanjo created the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission – the first body in Nigerian history totally dedicated to combating corruption. To head this body, Obasanjo appointed the tenacious police officer Nuhu Ribadu who was so aggressively dedicated to his task that he did not hesitate to expose corruption in his own organization (the police force). He even indicted his own boss (the former Inspector-General of police Tafa Balogun), leading to his boss’ dismissal, arrest and imprisonment. For the first time in Nigerian history, government ministers have been convicted of corruption and imprisoned. The list of those indicted include the former Governor of Plateau State Joshua Dariye and the former Governor of Bayelsa State Diepreye Alamieyeseigha. The corruption in Nigeria is too deeply rooted to be removed by a short term campaign. Only a prolonged decades long continuous assault on corruption and re-orientation of values will bring corruption down to manageable levels. Nonetheless the EFCC has at least created public consciousness of the anti-corruption campaign and made it a talking point. This is reflected in the saying on Nigerian streets that “the fear of EFCC is the beginning of wisdom”.
The OBJ Kitchen Cabinet
Rather than appoint cronies and his kinsmen to key government positions, Obasanjo assembled an impressive team of capable reformers such as the internationally acclaimed former Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (a former World Bank officer), the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria Professor Charles Soludo, the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory Nasir El-Rufai, the EFCC Chairman Nuhu Ribadu, and the NAFDAC Director-General Professor Dora Akunliyi. Each of the foregoing has distinguished themselves and performed admirably in their portfolio. Professor Soludo has totally revamped Nigeria’s banking sector and Mrs Okonjo-Iweala was the architect of Nigeria’s debt rescheduling and repayment plan which led to the repayment of its debt to the Paris Club. In 2006 Soludo won two awards by being named the most outstanding central bank governor in the world, and in Africa.
The author is no Obasanjo acolyte or apologist and concedes that is flawed. The only objective barometer by which Obasanjo can be assessed is by comparing him to his predecessors. On that front he cannot be accused of not having love for Nigeria in his heart, and he has managed to positively impact the lives of Nigeria’s citizens more than his predecessors Abacha and Babangida. The comparisons of him to Abacha are laughable. Abacha had no reform programme or political plan other than his bid to transform himself from a military to civilian dictator. There are several spheres in which Obasanjo could have performed better, but in criticizing his governance, the critics should also show objectivity by highlighting his achievements.